first published July 26, 2014
If they had known what I was they would have thrown me out of the community. That would have destroyed me. Such love, such relationships, were not allowed. It was more than sinful; it went against God’s commandment to be fruitful and multiply.
I married young, as proscribed, and my wife and I had eight children. I was a good husband and a good father, but I lived all my life hiding my true feelings.
I first felt the stirrings as a young man in the Yeshiva, surrounded by boys and other young men, young rabbis, teachers. I felt a kind of love and attraction that I never felt for a woman. Perhaps it was merely that I could understand men better. In our community, men and woman had very different and specific roles.
I suppose there were couples who really loved each other, but I suspect that more just played their part, did what was expected. Men went to work and studied and prayed. Women raised the children, kept the home, obeyed their husbands. And in this duty, in this obligation, a kind of sentimental attachment was forged. The love for one’s spouse was an extension of one’s love for God.
When I was young, the feelings were inchoate, vague, undirected at any one specific person. I simply preferred the company of men. But this was not unusual. Unrelated men and women were not allowed to be alone with each other, thus men were always together. We prayed and danced and socialized amongst ourselves. Any affection I felt towards another man I assumed to be perfectly normal. And truly, it was not strange for me to spend most of my free time in the shul, praying with my brethren.
But when I was 32, I met another young man a few years older than myself. He had just moved from another community to be closer to his wife’s family. We quickly became the best of friends, spending as much time together as possible; always seeking out each other’s company. We spent hours discussing obscure religious tracts and the minutia of Jewish law. Initially, it was a meeting of minds. We had a deep, spiritual connection. I always looked forward to our walks and conversations about the most profound subjects. Nobody had ever understood my mind the way he did.
I missed him when we had to be apart for a few days (over a holiday, for example, when we had obligations to our extended families).
And then, one evening, it happened. We were a bit drunk after a Purim party (the only time Jews really get drunk). We were walking home from the shul. It was very late and we’d been amongst the very last to leave. The street was quiet and dark. We came to the corner where we had to part, each to go in our own direction home, and there was a look that passed between us; a look that said, “I feel it, too.”
We lingered, wanting to savor the moment. I don’t know what gave me the courage, but I reached out and touched his hand – just a brush of my finger against the back of his palm. He took my hand in his and pulled me close, first glancing around to be sure nobody could see us. He drew me into the shadows of a closed storefront and kissed me.
The kiss lasted for what seemed like blissful eternity. I could taste the sweet wine on his tongue. We were drunk enough to lose our inhibitions, but not so drunk as to be foolish or careless, so that was as far as it went. What else could we do? Even if we’d had the opportunity – a place to go to be alone – we would not have done it. We were men of God, and such things were forbidden.
But from that point on, we were damned, or at least it felt that way. It didn’t matter how much we desired each other; ours was a love that could never be consummated. The desire was both a blessing and a curse. Strangely, this torment brought us closer. We were both feeling the same emotions; both learning so many deep lessons about love and duty and choosing our obligations to others over the fulfillment of our own selfish needs. We were both traveling the same path, both equally committed to remaining on it. This was how we shared and nurtured and demonstrated our love.
Our physical relationship consisted at best of a furtive touch when nobody was looking; a “brotherly” embrace that lingered a bit longer than it should have; the feel of his warm palm pressed against mine with our fingers entwined as we danced the hora, trancelike, ecstatic. I lived each week for the few brief moments at the end of Shabbos prayers, when I could safely feel his arms around me.
We still spent time together but rarely allowed ourselves the opportunity to be completely alone or in any compromising situation. We were careful never to let ourselves become too tempted. We did not get drunk together again. Sober, we were much more sensible.
And so it went. I preferred his company to that of any other human being; valued his wisdom more; thrilled at the sound of his laugh. There was never a moment when I did not think of him. Ours was a deeply spiritual relationship and remained so for decades. Our chasteness was a testament to our love of both God and each other. We both agreed: This was a test put upon us by the Almighty and we would embrace the challenge and rise above it.
And then I got sick. I was only in my late 50s but the cancer came on fast and I was gone in a matter of months.
He was at my bedside when I died, along with my wife and children. We prayed together in those final days, until I could no longer speak, until I could no longer remain conscious. His presence and love calmed me and let me pass over in peace.
I know he still feels me in his heart when he prays. I know I still live in his soul, as he does in mine.
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